Lot 1511. A superb and very rare Ming-style blue and white basin, Qianlong six-character sealmark and of the period (1736-1795); 14 1/8 in. (36 cm.) diamEstimate HKD 3,000,000 - HKD 5,000,000. Price realised HKD 3,480,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2006

In emulation of the Yongle prototype, strongly potted with a flat base and deep, slightly inturned, sides rising to a wide everted rim, finely painted in a rich cobalt-blue with deliberate 'heaping and piling', with Islamic-inspired petals radiating from a central flowerhead on the base, surrounded on the sides with a broad frieze containing a continuous composite floral scroll, repeated on the exterior, the everted rim with a wave band and the underside with detached floral sprays, the base unglazed except for the countersunk central disc inscribed with the reign mark, box. 

Archaism of the Qing - an outstanding Qianlong basin

This rare basin belongs to a group of blue and white porcelains, made for the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, which are both archaistic and reflect the influence of Near Eastern arts. This relatively small group revives the fine porcelains of the Yongle and Xuande reigns which initially took their forms from Near Eastern metalwork or glass. Although some of these forms were decorated in a semblance of the original Near Eastern decoration when they were made in blue and white porcelain, the current form is an exception. A Yongle example of this form is also included in the current sale (lot 1510), and a discussion of the decoration can be found in the notes accompanying the Ming basin. The Ming dynasty examples are rare, and the Qing basins, are even rarer.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors should turn to the porcelains of the Yongle reign when looking for archaistic designs. These emperors were known for their sophisticated tastes, and for the high quality of the porcelain produced during their reigns. This particular form was one, which when decorated in the styles adopted in both the early 15th and the early 18th century, produced an object that showed to full advantage the high quality of the porcelain from which it was made, as well as the excellent blue with which it was decorated. The decoration on the form also gave a pleasing and interesting view from all angles. The 18th century porcelains, such as the current example, retained the turbulent wave band seen on the medium and smaller-sized basins of the Yongle period, but rendered it in a slightly more formal style. Floral scrolls continued to be applied to the sides of the vessels, but the mixed floral scrolls of the early 15th century were replaced by lotus scrolls. The arabesques on the interior base of the 18th century vessels retained the essential reference of the Yongle designs, but rendered them with more formality and precision.

It is interesting to note that in the relatively complex designs painted onto these Qing blue and white basins, the 18th century decorator has limited the extent to which he has suggested the 'heaped and piled' effect of the cobalt blue on Yongle porcelains. There is just enough to make the point that the piece is archaistic, but not so much as to spoil the finely painted design. Although the interiors of these basins vary in their decorative format, it is highly probable that the inspiration of the present basin followed closely, in both its size and unusual trident motif on the interior, to the early Ming basin in the National Palace Museum, illustrated in Blue-and-white Ware of the Ming Dynasty, Book II (part I), Hong Kong, 1963, p. 63, pl. 21a, measuring 34.7 diam. (fig. 1).

Although there was a range of sizes among the basins of this shape in the Yongle reign, the 18th century vessels appear to be uniformly quite large. Yongzheng examples in both the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the Shanghai Museum have rim diameters of 33.4 cm., illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan cang - Qing dai yuyao ciqi, juan 1, vol. 2, Forbidden City Publishing, Beijing, 2005, pp. 114-5, no. 46; and Qing dai qinghua ciqi jianshang, Lu Minghua (ed.), Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, Shanghai, 1996, p. 13, no. 15, respectively. A further Yongzheng basin, with a rim diameter of 34 cm., in the Tianminlou collection and is illustrated in Chinese Porcelain - The S. C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, part II, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, p. 82, no. 56 (fig. 2). A Qianlong marked basin of this type was sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong on 1st November 1994, lot 152; and another with a different interior base decoration was sold by Sotheby's London on 2nd December 1997, lot 201.

The current basin is not only a rare and beautiful object, but also represents an interesting phenomenon in the history of Chinese ceramics, when the Qing emperors looked back in admiration at porcelains made in the early Ming, which had in turn looked to the Near East for inspiration.

Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Hong Kong, 28 November 2006